The Santa Barbara Symphony will open its season this weekend with one of the most uplifting pieces in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But don’t be surprised if the “Ode to Joy” is tinged with just a hint of sadness.
Last week John Robinson, who has served as the orchestra’s executive director for the past eight years, announced his departure from the job. Next month, he and his family will relocate to San Francisco, where his wife begins a new job as executive assistant to San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas.
Like virtually all of his peers, Robinson faced an enormous challenge during the past couple of years as the economy went into freefall. During this difficult period, several American orchestras have gone bankrupt, while many others have clashed with their musicians over proposals to cut salaries.
Neither has happened here. The Santa Barbara Symphony’s annual budget is currently $2.4 million, and while that’s down from its $2.6 million peak a couple of years back, it’s still a significant increase from the $1.8 million budget of Robinson’s first season.
Robinson was forced to make some tough choices, including the cancellation of this year’s July 4 pops concert in the County Courthouse Sunken Gardens. But so far, at least, the orchestra’s core mission of presenting stimulating subscription concerts has emerged from the recession unscathed.
“We’ve had some real financial challenges in recent years, but we’ve always redoubled our fundraising efforts and cut expenses to make it work,” he said. “We’re 99 percent finished with our negotiations over a new three-year contract with our musicians. We don’t envision the next three years as a period of burgeoning growth, but we haven’t had to ask for any reductions in pay. The musicians seem very happy with where we are.”
Robinson had to negotiate two tricky transitions during his tenure: the change in music director from Gisèle Ben-Dor to Nir Kabaretti (who begins his fifth season this weekend), and the move from the Arlington Theatre to the renovated Granada. Ben-Dor has publicly complained that hostile members of the board of directors forced her out of her position after a decade; her case remains in arbitration.
Regarding the move to the Granada, Robinson recalled resistance from some subscribers who feared losing their preferred seats. “There was a lot of apprehension,” he said. “There were times when people in the community wondered if we were doing the right thing. But it was a great thing for the organization—such a positive move in terms of acoustics, and the quality of the audience’s experience.”
That audience is about to grow. For the first time ever, KDB radio (93.7 FM) will broadcast the opening-night concert live at 8 p.m. Saturday.
“Our hope is that the broadcast will connect new people to the Symphony and also bring the music into the homes of those whose health and age no longer allows them to join us at the Granada,” said Robinson. “For many of our senior community, the music is incredibly important in their lives, but the act of getting to and from the concert hall is a great exertion. We are glad to have this platform to expand our virtual audience.”
Robinson will soon be part of that virtual audience; he hopes to listen to future live broadcasts via kdb.com. “As happy as I am that our orchestra has a strong balance sheet,” he said, “I am most proud of how beautifully the orchestra plays, and the consistent, high quality of the performances in the Granada under Maestro Kabaretti.”
The Santa Barbara Symphony will perform Beethoven’s Consecration of the House overture and Ninth Symphony at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 16, and 3 p.m. Sunday, October 17, at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Single tickets are $39 to $125; student and senior citizen discounts are available. For more information, call 899-2222 or see thesymphony.org.